Purdue's first-year programs take retention rates to an all-time high

November 23, 2009 Soumitro Sen

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - When 18-year-old Naina Singh first arrived at Purdue, she was homesick like most freshmen and making the tough transition to college. But thanks to the university's Boiler Gold Rush orientation program, she not only hung on, but two years later went on to chair the very same event.

Singh is one of the thousands of Purdue students who benefit each year from numerous first-year programs, which have been designed and implemented to provide academic, financial and social support to freshmen students.

As figures indicate, the programs boost retention rates. This fall the retention rate of students from freshman to sophomore year at Purdue University is 87.2 percent - an all time high - according to numbers recently released by the university's enrollment management office.

"Purdue has these first-year programs because student success is at the core of what we do," said Andrew Koch, director of Student Access, Transition and Success Programs. "We have high expectations from our students, and so we give them high support.

"We admit students because we believe they can succeed, and we've worked hard to put resources in place that they can use to help them reach their goals."

In August U.S.News & World Report included Purdue in its list of 24 public universities that offer the most outstanding first-year experience programming in the nation. The same month, Princeton Review quoted a student as saying: "Purdue boasts an 'absolutely amazing' freshman orientation program."

Michael Knabel, a 19-year-old student majoring in pre-pharmacy from Zionsville, Ind., participates in learning communities, a program in which a group of 20-30 freshmen enroll in two or more courses based on a major or theme and can choose to live in the same residence hall.

In 2008-09, freshmen participating in learning communities had a 7.3 percent higher retention rate than those not taking part, Koch said. About 1,390 freshmen participated in learning communities this year, he said.

"I honestly think that learning communities are great," Knabel said. "You are with people you can relate to and get to make some great friendships. I also think being in a learning community can really boost your GPA and teach you how to work well with others.

"At the residence hall where I live, my floor last year was great because we were in the same program with the same classes, so I basically had homework help and study partners around me 24/7. To top it all, I made some lifelong friends in the learning community."

This year Knabel and his learning community peers have chosen to live on the same floor at Shreve Hall.

"I made tons of friends and stand a good chance of getting into pharmacy school partly because of them and all the support I was able to give and get," he said.

Isaiah Johnson, a 19-year-old sophomore from Columbus, Ind., majoring in education, is mentoring students in Purdue Promise, a new grant and support program for Twenty-first Century Scholars studying at Purdue. Twenty-first Century Scholars, coming from families with a combined income of $40,000 or less, are eligible to get funding through Purdue Promise. They also are required to take part in a rigorous support program for the duration of the four-year award. Johnson also participated in Boiler Gold Rush this year as a team leader.

Boiler Gold Rush is a weeklong orientation program that takes place before the fall semester begins. The program addresses a wide range of academic, personal and social college transition needs. During the week, groups of 12-15 freshmen team up with a current Purdue student who answers their questions and helps them adjust to their new life on campus.

"Programs like Purdue Promise and Boiler Gold Rush really help students succeed because they know someone's there for them," Johnson said. "This semester, as a mentor with Purdue Promise, I'm helping teach students various life skills and assisting them with their transition into college. It's also a great way to meet people and make friends."

Singh, who's from Granger, Ind., and majoring in neurobiology and physiology, agreed.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for programs like Boiler Gold Rush," she said. "The program made me feel a sense of belonging and was just plain fun. The other Student Access, Transition and Success programs are equally important. They've made differences in hundreds of students' lives."

On average, freshmen taking part in Boiler Gold Rush in 2008-09 had a 6.67 percent higher retention rate than those who didn't participate, Koch said. About 5,300 freshmen and transfer students participated in Boiler Gold Rush this year, he said. Around 170 freshmen scholars joined the new Purdue Promise initiative this fall, which is projected to have as many as 850 participants by fall 2012, he said.

The camaraderie among participants in programs that boost retention fosters strong working relationships between students and professors as well.

Marcy Towns, an associate professor of chemistry who has taught general chemistry in a learning community class, found the student interaction invaluable.

"It was a great experience because the classes are small and you really get to know the students," she said. "In a cozy setting, there's more student-to-student interaction, which builds a community and gives students study partners and a support system.

"There is also a lot of student-to-professor interaction. I continue to write letters of recommendation for my students from the learning community class."

Towns also speaks to thousands of students during Boiler Gold Rush, giving tips on how to succeed in their freshman year and beyond.

"We tell them things they need to do to be successful," she said. "They are things like making a weekly schedule or meeting regularly with their professors during office hours. And it has worked. I've heard some professors say that after they taught the first class of the semester, all the freshmen students came down wanting to introduce themselves."

Summer Transition, Advising and Registration (STAR), another retention-boosting program, is a mandatory one-day advisement and registration program held on campus during summer before classes begin. At the program, all first-year and transfer students meet with an adviser and register for classes. They also visit their residence hall, get student IDs and receive other important information they need before the semester starts.

This fall during the STAR event, more than 6,000 students were given a copy of "Stealing Buddha's Dinner," a multi-award winning book by Bich Minh Nguyen, to kick off the new common reading program at Purdue.

"Common reading efforts are a growing part of the coordinated first-year experience at many U.S. colleges and universities," Koch said. "Reading the same book gives students a common academic experience and enhances synergies across disciplines and administrative units."

All of the programs are geared to meet an overall university goal of increasing student access and success.

"These coordinated campus-wide efforts bolster an array of college- and department-specific efforts," Koch said. "These efforts combine to help Purdue record gains in retention and garner accolades, such as being listed among institutions for their first-year experience by U.S.News & World Report.

"It also helps us fulfill our access and success mission, which is to ensure that qualified students can enter Purdue's competitive environment and that they successfully complete their programs of study."

Writer: Soumitro Sen, 765-496-9711, ssen@purdue.edu

Sources:   Andrew Koch, 765-494-2451, akkoch@purdue.edu

                    Marcy Towns, 765-496-1574, mtowns@purdue.edu

                    Michael Knabel, mknabel@purdue.edu

                    Isaiah Johnson, ijohnsons@purdue.edu

                    Naina Singh, singhn@purdue.edu